Sunday, May 20, 2012


Our next door neighbor, Stine (pronounced "steena," a Norwegian variant of Christine), invited our family to visit her parents' farm.  Her parents, Liv and Robert, came to pick up the six of us, along with Stine and her son, Jakob.  Sætregården specializes in education, therapy, and recreation, serving a variety of communities in the Bergen area, including school children, seniors, the disabled, and horseback riding students.  Given the idyllic setting, warm hospitality of our hosts, and abundance of cute animals, it's no wonder that people want to visit.

Oscar walking up the road to the farm
When we arrived, Jakob (Stine's son) gave Jonah, Oscar, and Sergio lessons on feeding the chickens and goats.  We were surprised to discover two turkeys, one of which was very big and hilarious (I believe, and the boys agree, that turkeys are funny).
Jakob, showing Sergio how to feed the goats
Sergio feeding the goats
Oscar amazed by chickens
Jonah laughing at the turkeys
After feeding the goats and chickens, we went into the stable, where the boys got to visit the horses and see the newborn lambs.  They took turns feeding one of the babies.
Jonah feeding the lamb
Next, the boys took turns riding horses.
Jonah on horseback
Then, they spent some time climbing a mountain to peek into the edge of the woods.  Sergio had some pretty carefully conceived plans that involved hitting tigers, lions, and coyotes with a stick before they could eat the goats, sheep, and chickens.
Up the mountain
Stine's parents invited us in afterwards to have waffles, ice cream, coffee, and refreshments.  For the boys, it was up there with just about any birthday party.
The boys enjoying iskrem!
An extra picture of a goat....  because goats are great.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

17. mai

On May 17th, we celebrated Norway's "National Day" (or "Constitution Day"), usually referred to as syttende mai (translation: 17th of May).  We started the day early, by heading to Mass (it was also Ascension Thursday), then met up with some friends afterwards and spent the morning walking around the city center.  We knew the National Day was going to be a very big deal here.  We saw flags coming out everywhere starting at the beginning of May.  The bus routes were totally upended to accommodate the activity downtown.  And, I was a bit shocked to see some of the neighbors out into the wee hours of the night on the 16th preparing their gardens and trimming their shrubs.

Norwegians heading into the city to celebrate
But had no idea just how big it was until we saw the throngs of people converging on the city, early on a rainy morning, dressed in their finest clothes.  The most immediate difference between the 17 of May and our 4th of July is the way that enthusiasm for the day is expressed.  Everyone was wearing something classy (except us, of course, and the graduating seniors, who wore their overalls and caps).  Many were dressed in suits and gowns, but most seemed to be wearing bunads, Norwegian folk costumes.  The various designs and styles represent the specific communities with which the costumes are associated.

Jessie and Benji modeling their bunads
In the city, almost all businesses were closed, but small booths selling hot dogs, ice cream, cotton candy, coffee, and sundry treats had sprung up like a ring of mushrooms around heart of the city, feeding the festive mood of the morning.  Eventually, the parade began and people started marching through the street representing various organizations, ranging from silly to serious.
The prisons in Norway are much more relaxed than back home. 
(Actually, they are, but these are just some people marching in the parade.)
Norwegians are very athletic, even on holidays. 
(Actually, they are, but these were also just some people marching in the parade and doing aerobics).

Some of the more serious parade participants

An interesting highlight, and something specific to Bergen, is the buekorps (trans: "bow corps").  Over the past month, we have been seeing groups of kids in uniforms carrying wooden crossbows and marching to drums.  After talking with some friends here, I learned that the buekorps are part of a folk tradition in Bergen that stretches back at least 170 years.  The first buekorps were organized by boys (now they are co-ed) in Bergen and based on military exercises that they had imitated, and membership was based largely on neighborhood.  These units would train, elect leaders, plan missions against rival units, and wage "war" in the city.  While I am not entirely certain of the history and level of conflict, my understanding is that by the 1850s (perhaps, in parallel to the growing nationalism of the times), these organizations had shifted their responsibilities and migrated into more communitarian endeavors like service and "civil defense." Today, they remain autonomous, youth-run organizations, though they are largely focused on sport and social activities.  (I think this is one of the most interesting things I have noticed about Norway: Children are encouraged to develop leadership skills and a sense of responsibility.  This attitude of encouragement is matched with commitment and investment by the older generations.)  

A beukorps group preparing for the march.
After we watched the parade in the city center, we headed over to have lunch with our friends Scott, Jill, Aurora, Benji, and Jessie.  In addition to the pleasant company of our hosts and their guests, we had a nice meal (which included the traditional rømmegrøt, a thick porridge made from sour cream and served with butter, sugar, and cinnamon) and then walked with them to their neighborhood parade. 

Oscar and Jonah in the sack race...
Even in his sleep, Sergio celebrates.
Another interesting aspect of Norway's National Day was the experience of the neighborhood parade, which are organized by school district and which focus on the youth.  The parades snake through the local school district and end up at the school house, where there are games, snacks (hot dogs, coffee, cakes, ice cream, etc.), speeches about civic values, and student performances.  Sergio fell asleep by the time we reached the end of the parade route (he needed it), but Jonah and Oscar were awake to participate in sack races, tug-o-war, and tricycle races.  My favorite activity (and one which Oscar and Jonah liked) was hammering a nail into a board.

Gratulerer med dagen! (literally, "Congratulations with the day!"; used for birthdays and for May 17th)

Monday, May 14, 2012

Barnas Kulturhus

I know I said my next blog entry would be about the 17th of May, but we went someplace on Saturday that I didn't want to leave out.  It's called Barnas Kulturhus (Children's Culture House) and it's fantastic.

Most Saturdays they host a performance for children, followed by the opportunity to explore the house's different "activity rooms."  The activities vary from week to week.

There was a "Pixel Room" where kids could glue colorful squares onto white walls to make words and designs;

a room full of really fun chairs;

and a room decorated with fur and wood where kids could use sticks, twine, and bark to create art objects inspired by nature.
There was also a room for painting and a room filled with Legos.  And this past weekend there was a huge celebration because it was the Barnas Kulturhus's 20th "birthday."  There were clowns and cake and food (waffles and fishcakes!) and lots of great performances.  It was spectacular.
Clowns on Stilts
Girls Giving out Strawberries

We watched a pirate play, a drum performance, and storytelling.

A musician led an interactive performance using lots of  unique and interesting instruments.  Oscar participated so enthusiastically that the man called him up to be in the show.  The two of them jammed together onstage for a good 10 minutes or so.
There was a very exciting hip-hop dance demonstration (just look at the very exciting picture I took of it!).

Finally, in response to popular demand, I'm posting a couple of recent (and adorable) photos of Izzy:

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lessons in Norwegian Culture

Just when I was starting to feel like I knew Norway, I discovered lots of new and fascinating things about it.

Starting April 26, I began seeing young people in red overalls everywhere I went.  I learned that these are russ, high school seniors celebrating their last weeks of school.  The overalls, usually but not always red (the color indicates the student's course of study), are meant to be worn everyday during russfeiring (the russ celebration) without being washed.  They contain special pockets for mock business cards that the russ give to one another, as well as to anyone else who asks.  Everywhere they go, russ are hounded by kids (including my own) who are collecting russekort.

Sergio scores a russekort.
Russekort (Russ Cards)

Russfeiring is an important national tradition, the roots of which date back to the 1700s.  But the celebrations also draw a great deal of criticism because debauchery and dangerous pranks are a huge part of the festivities; because they're shockingly excessive (it's not uncommon for groups of friends to pool their money to buy a bus or van [often complete with minibar and custom paint job] just for the occasion); and because they take place right before final exams (and are, of course, a huge distraction from studying).

The culmination of the russ festivities is May 17, Norway's National Day.  There are huge parades throughout the country on this day, and the russ walk in the parades wearing special hats called russelue.  During russfeiring, the students can earn "knots" for their caps by performing pranks and dares.

Some Russ Earning Knots.

If you want to learn more about russ and russfeiring (I, personally, can't get enough of it), here are a few links:

On Saturday, I took Jonah, Sergio, and Isidore to a Cultural Festival in Bryggen, the famous wharf area of Bergen.  The festival's name translates to "Ruins, caves, and other secrets," and it was one of the most interesting and valuable experiences of my life, and a great opportunity to learn more about the area.


First we watched a terrific play that began outdoors and moved all around, with scenes being performed throughout Bryggen.  Some of the players wore wooden masks that totally freaked Sergio out:

From what I could tell (it was, of course, in Norwegian), the play was set in Bryggen during the period when German merchants of the Hanseatic League controlled the fish trade in Bergen.  The plot (I think) centered on a young apprentice to the trade.  The play employed a lot of bawdy humor.  Some of it, fortunately, was lost on Jonah, but some of it he found just hysterical.

The final scenes of the performance were acted out in a building that had been constructed on top of the ruins of a stone house that, in the 13th century, served as a priest's home.  As part of the festival, we were permitted to go down into the basement with flashlights to explore these ruins.  It was amazing.

The priest who had lived in the house served at Mariakirken, a church built in the 12th century and located just next door.  It's currently being renovated, so it's closed and wrapped entirely in plastic sheeting, and has been as long as we've lived in Bergen.  But, apparently, underneath, it looks something like this:

During the festival, the public was welcomed in to view plans for the renovation.  Children were given wooden cutouts based on the church's general shape, and were allowed to put on gloves, painter's coveralls and protective eyewear and to paint their own small churches (Sergie was much too small for the coveralls and wore a garbage bag with holes for his head and arms instead).  Outside the church, carpenters taught people about tools and techniques of their trade.  There were tools set out with blocks of wood that people could practice with, so Sergio and Jonah had a great opportunity to endanger themselves trying to use chisels and mallets.

Next we found an area where they were teaching children games from Viking and Medieval times.  In one of the games, players hold a stick that they try to touch to a wooden goal.  The goal is defended by one player who swings a rope with something soft but forceful, about the size of a toaster, attached to the end.  This goalkeeper tries to clobber the other players, knocking them over and preventing them from reaching the goal.  The first player to reach the goal and touch it with his or her stick becomes the new goalkeeper.  Jonah and Sergio had a blast playing this game, though Sergie scrupulously avoided both the swinging rope and the goal.

Our final stop was at Bryggens Museum.  Built over the remains of the first settlement at Bryggen, it displays both the archeological site and a large number of excavated artifacts, offering insights into the lives and culture of those who lived there during medieval times.
We also learned a lot about St. Sunniva, the patron saint of Bergen, there.

St. Sunniva

According to legend, she was an Irish king's daughter who lived in the 10th century and refused to marry a powerful viking who sought her hand.  As a result, the vikings made life difficult for her and for her people.  She and a group of followers fled Ireland by boat, landing on a Norwegian island.  There, they were again pursued, and took shelter in a cave.  Sunniva and her followers prayed that they would rather die than fall into the hands of by their pursuers, and rocks fell down, sealing off the entrance to the cave.  Years later, the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason excavated the cave, and the remains of Sunniva and her followers were discovered.  Sunniva's incorruptible body (lost around 1536 as a consequence of the Reformation) was reportedly as beautiful as it had been the day she died, and the bones of her followers emitted a beautiful fragrance.

While the rest of us were at the cultural festival, Oscar was having the time of his young life with Davin at a friend's birthday party.  It was at a totally over-the-top children's playland called Leos Lekeland, and Davin and Oscar both said they had a fantastic time.

Here's Oscar standing in a castle, shooting air-propelled foam cannon balls.

And here he is tubing down one of Leos Lekeland's many outrageous slides.

I got an email recently about an upcoming "Extreme Week" for Oscar and Sergio's section at their school.  I'm including the program here, not because I learned something new about Norway from it (I already know how exciting Norwegian preschools are), but because I thought it might be an interesting cultural lesson for friends and family back home in the US:
 *Monday: We go into the woods at 09.45 with the entire group, where we'll spend most of the day. We light a fire and fry fish cakes and bread on the fire. We'll use nature as a playground.
*Tuesday: The oldest kids are traveling to Damsgård mountain.  Will we make it to the top this time? We'll bring a packed lunch which we'll eat while we enjoy the view.
*Wednesday: We'll go into the woods at 09.45 with the entire group, where we'll spend most of the day. We'll light bonfires and barbecue hot dogs.
*Thursday: This day we focus on singing games and ring games. We try to remember these from when we were young, and teach them to the children. We go on a trip down to the soccer field for these activities.
*Friday: We grill "treasure chests"
(fish and vegetables in foil) on the patio. 

The aim of this week is to teach the kids to enjoy being outdoors in all weather, and get them and ourselves inspired to do more outdoor activities.
This will be fun :-)

I'm sure it will!

One last surprising discovery I made about Bergen is that it snows in May(!).  We had been having warm Spring weather...In fact, it was nice enough that the kids had gone swimming on May Day (though not for long--the weather was beautiful, but the lake was still freezing cold).  Then, last week, it snowed.  I totally didn't see it coming.

My next post will be about May 17, Norway's Constitution Day.  It's a very, very big deal here and I'm sure I'll learn a lot more about Norway and Norwegian culture then...